Imperative to one’s understanding of American ideals is the notion of the ‘self-made man.’ This ‘self-made man’ may be viewed as an archetype of individualistic power, or perhaps even be considered this power’s pinnacle. One of my hopes is for this article to lay waste to the common idea of the ‘self-made man,’ though certainly not in entirety. Rather, I desire to tear this idea open to reveal what truths lay within it. I have known several men and women whom others would call ‘self-made’, while they themselves would refuse such an identity. My greater goal in this article is not only to recognize how all people, including those considered ‘self-made’, come to fruition, but far more so to inspire a further appreciation for those responsible for our growth.
One of my greatest heroes is my grandfather, Leon Johnson, whom I know as Pop-pop. He spent his earliest years of life being raised amidst the strife of the Great Depression, eventually going into several different branches of the armed forces. He had turned down a football scholarship in favor of becoming a stone mason, which became his trade of choice, even starting his own company. He faced down a great variety of financial and emotional struggles alongside my grandmother, Beverly, all while she raised nine children, including my mother. As a gratuitous risk-taker, he has had far too many near death experiences, and is one of the most engaging story-tellers I have ever known. He is, in my eyes, the epitome of what I once thought to be the ‘self-made man.’ He is also a critical reason as to why I no longer believe in the notion of one who is ‘self-made’, as he ensured that I know the truth about his iron will.
What did my Pop-pop reveal to me about himself? He revealed how his unyielding nature had been honed by fighting off his violently abusive step-father as a child, and how growing in knowledge of his step-father’s miserable life story taught him to pity men far more than hate them. He revealed how his wife, my Gramie, had been the one person he could always count on to guide him and keep him stable. In his own words, spoken many times, “I would have died a long time ago if it weren’t for her…” He revealed how, in his depression following the suicide of my late Aunt Stacy, being a pillar and consoler for others experiencing similar darkness had shown him the reality of Romans 8:28. A hundred times over he testified to me that his accomplishments were never his own. Every conviction he had ever made, every pain and joy he had ever felt, and every piece of himself he had ever acted upon was brought to him by the hands of others, all that he and others would grow in the hands of God Himself.
Though my Pop-pop’s testament is a single story among billions, all that I have witnessed in the lives of others has testified to his claims. American individualism trains us to see ourselves as solitary in freedom, a singular being in a crowd of other singulars. While somewhat true, this perspective so narrowly perceives our condition that much else is missed. Humanity dwells in a cause-and-effect driven universe, every action and event fueling another. Do we not operate on these same principles? We are more than just individuals, we are crowds composed of them. The lives of men are unchangeably interwoven together, every soul assisting in the development of another, whether each impact be negative or positive. It is because of this gorgeous and tragic nature of human experience that I cringe at the thought of some being ‘self-made.’ Though it correctly honors those who have endured much only to rise above their challenges, the notion of being ‘self-made’ treats with ignorance the Divine and human influence upon which their self-development was founded. The stories of those who thought bigger, loved deeper, and fought harder than all others should be honored in full, as more than the actions of a solitary individual, but rather the product of an intimate and intricately designed system.
What then, we might ask, would it look like if we were to regularly exercise an appreciation of the beauty and complexity of interpersonal-development? Furthermore, how might our Lord and Designer want us to appreciate His work? It is for the sake of answering these two questions that I have written this article. Several years ago, my friend Rose Mary shared an insight with me that in time I hope we will put to practice: if you can think of anyone whom God has used as light in your life, seek them out, and let them know of the grace that has poured from them. Love fervently, for so you have been loved by God Himself.